SYDNEY, Australia - Who's cheating?
That is the troubling question facing the 2000 Summer Olympics today as more than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries are due to gather under a southern sky to rekindle a flame and pay homage to sporting glory.
Beneath the glitter of the opening ceremonies, the symbolic advance of Australia toward a new century and the stirring aspiration of an Olympic motto of swifter, higher, stronger, the Games have been shadowed by the specter of performance-enhancing drugs.
The pre-Games buildup wasn't about athletic greatness; it was about sport's "war on drugs," as the International Olympic Committee instituted a new test for erythropoietin (EPO), which increases oxygenation of the blood and is believed to be beneficial in endurance sports.
Critics say the "war" is a public relations battle and not a serious effort to rid the Games of performance-enhancing drugs.
"It is doping that has played a major role in the promotion of the Olympics," said Penn State epidemiologist Charles Yesalis, who has studied and written extensively on performance-enhancing drugs. "The doping creates bigger-than-life athletes who can create bigger-than-life feats."
But IOC insiders say they're doing their best to root out the cheats, with a new, get-tough testing policy that has already yielded results.
Last week, China withdrew 27 athletes, including seven rowers who recorded irregular blood tests.
An Uzbekistan wrestling coach was detained at Sydney airport after customs officials uncovered vials of suspected human growth hormone.
"We've caught a lot of them, and we've scared a lot of them," said Franklin Servan-Schreiber, the IOC's spokesman. "That's where we are. My rough estimate is that 50 athletes pulled out in the last two months."
For the Olympics, which derive their global cachet partly from their image of purity, doping presents a serious challenge. Why watch the Games if there are rumors and whispers about athletes being fueled by pharmacological cocktails? Why should hosts like Sydney and Australia spend the billions needed and the years of hard work necessary to stage Games, when, at their heart, there is a suspicion that all is not well in the world sporting community?
"The fans may argue that they disapprove of doping, but do they disapprove enough to turn off their television sets?" Yesalis said.
No one knows. Billions of people are expected to watch what are essentially upside-down Games, as the Olympics come Down Under, out of season. Even in the United States, where events will be viewed hours - and in some cases more than a half-day - after they are actually held, the Games are expected to be a big television draw.
Yet if the IOC can't get a handle on the doping issue, the Olympics could be stained, a state of affairs that could affect the Games' growth.
"Their credibility is on the line," said John Hoberman, an Olympic historian and professor of Germanic studies at the University of Texas. "If they can't find some positives from 10,000 athletes, then something is wrong. Of course, they'll positive-spin it and say deterence works."
Games officials anticipate some 3,000 drug tests will be given here -2,000 taking place in competition and approximately 1,000 out of competition. The tests are designed to detect a range of banned substances such as stimulants, narcotics, steroids and diuretics.
Among the out-of-competition tests, there will be several hundred for EPO. The tests consist of both urine and blood samples, but they have been criticized because they detect use only within a three-day period. The IOC rejected a blood test developed by Australia that proved drug use in the previous 25 days.
IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch has defended the EPO tests, telling reporters "the deterrent effect is very important. I prefer to scare an athlete."
Yet with all the focus on drugs, a McCarthyesque atmosphere seems to be taking root in international sports. Record-setting performances raise suspicions among competitors and media. It's as if the presumption of innocence has been lost, and athletes are presumed guilty until declared otherwise, by lab results.
"It's pretty much sad, but right now, if you perform well in any sport, they cut your head off," Dutch swimming sensation Inge de Bruijn told the Australian newspaper.
Australia's 17-year-old swimming superstar, Ian Thorpe, has fended off doping allegations and made it clear he is against those who would raid a medicine cabinet to claim a medal.
"Using drugs isn't cheating, it's stealing victory from someone who deserves it," he told the Athlete magazine.
Coaches are trying to get their athletes to concentrate on their races and not get caught up in the drug talk.
"It's out of my hands," said Australian swimming coach Don Talbot. "Everyone has this in their heads, hoping it will be clean, told it will be clean. As much has been done as can be done. I only have a lot of hope that something serious is being done about the question of drug taking."
U.S. cyclist Chris Witty, who won speed skating medals at the 1998 Winter Olympics, applauded the IOC for its tougher testing policies.
"I'm glad that they have the tests," she said. "I'm glad we're at the Olympics and something is done and it's not a big cover-up story."
Doping at the Olympics is nothing new, according to David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." He writes of the cases of Thomas Hicks downing strychnine and brandy while winning the 1904 marathon and Danish cyclist Knut Jensen dying during the 1960 road race after ingesting amphetamines and nicotinyl tartrate.
Since drug testing was introduced in 1968 at Mexico City, 48 positive drug tests have been recorded at the Summer Games, according to Wallechinsky.
The most notorious drug cheat was Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal after testing positive for a steroid at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"That was the seminal moment in Olympic history with drugs," Yesalis said. "That's when the first domino started to fall."
Many, many more dominoes fell after the collapse of East Germany and revelations that the country engaged in a systematic and massive doping program to gain Olympic medals.
A drug scandal that nearly derailed the Tour de France cycling race in 1998 became the catalyst for the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The IOC-created and -funded organization was designed to serve as a global umbrella for research and drug testing. While claiming to be independent of the Olympic movement, the agency is headed by IOC vice president Dick Pound.
Pound has vowed the agency will publicly report drug-testing results in Sydney. He said he was "sick and tired of people saying we are covering up tests."
For the IOC, the goal seems to be: get rid of the cheats and put the focus on the Games.
Yet by taking on the drug issue, the IOC may risk putting the focus on a negative issue. Some say it is a step that must be taken to break the cycle of doping. Sean Petty, manager of the U.S. cycling team, likens the attention to doping and potential cheats to coverage of murders on local television stations.
"You see it on the news and that's what you hear about, but you know that murders aren't taking place all over the place," he said. "A drug positive is news. But the more scrutiny we can bring, the more testing, the more controls, the better."
Petty said there is "a lot of cleaning up" to do, but "everyone knows it's important."
Just how important may become clearer during the 17 days of ceremony, competition and potential controversy at the Olympics.
But officials are hoping that once the Games begin, the attention will turn away from the testing labs and on to the fields of play.
"I think the history shows us there is always controversy on all sorts of issues before the Games start," IOC spokesman Servan-Schreiber said. "But once the athletes walk into the field of play, the attention of the media will focus on the athletes and the competition, where it should be."